In the Heart of the Sea Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Author Herman Melville claims in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea that he’s not a particularly good writer, but he obviously knew something about how to effectively tell the story of the doomed whaling ship Essex. Melville’s novel Moby Dick, inspired in part by the Essex disaster, remains an American classic 165 years after it was published, while In the Heart of the Sea will probably vanish from the popular consciousness by next week, when it gets obliterated at the box office by the new Star Wars movie. That’s not to say Sea is a terrible movie; like many of Howard’s films, it’s a workmanlike, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser with some solid performances and a couple of rousing moments. Stacked up against one of the most celebrated novels of all time, though, it looks pretty paltry.
Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (working from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book) frame the story with Melville (Ben Whishaw) talking to Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the only living survivor of the Essex, some 30 years after the ship was sunk by an attacking sperm whale in 1820. Melville’s presence serves mainly as a source of familiar references, and Nickerson’s role as narrator makes little sense, since the flashbacks include numerous events at which he was not present. The main character is not young Nickerson, but rather Essex first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an upstanding veteran seaman forced to serve under arrogant, inexperienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), given command thanks to his family connections.
The clash between Chase and Pollard plays out predictably, as does much of the high-seas drama, and the other sailors end up mostly indistinguishable. The true story of the Essex is not quite as eventful as Melville’s narrative for Moby Dick, and Howard’s movie is more about grim survival at sea following a shipwreck than devastating whale attacks. There are a couple of thrilling set pieces featuring giant CGI whales (along with some jumbled editing and camera work), but most of the story is dull and plodding, with minimal character development.
The survivors’ ordeal is more cheesy than harrowing, and the movie wraps up with overly neat resolutions for both Melville and Nickerson as they go their separate ways. Melville went on to create acclaimed fiction from traumatic true events, but Howard struggles to make those same true events anywhere near as compelling as Melville’s fiction.